Candice Millard, Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill (New York: Anchor Books, 2017), 382 pages including index, notes and a selective bibliography plus 16 pages of black and white photos and two pages of maps.
As the 19th Century drew to a close, Great Britain was as powerful as ever and a young Winston Churchill was dying (or at least willing to risk death) for fame. His goals were set high. After serving in the military in India and the Sudan and as a military observer with the Spanish in Cuba during the revolution there just before the Spanish American War, the young Churchill ran for parliament. He lost, but this was first displayed his unusual talents of public speaking. Although he was only in his mid-20s, Churchill felt that his life was rushing away. He was also more than a little disturbed by his beautiful American mother (his father was deceased by this time) flirting with men not much older than him. So when war broke out in South Africa with the Boers, Churchill took the first ship he could find to head south as a war correspondent.
At first the war wasn’t going very well for the British. The Boers were fiercely independent and loyal to their homeland and were armed with better weapons than the British. Although the British had finally given up their red coats for khaki, they still fought as they had in the American Revolution, in lines that marched toward the enemy. The Boers were masters at concealment (which the British felt was cowardly). But concealment was effective against the British discipline.
Churchill traveled across the country by train and then ship to arrive where the fighting was underway. Once there, he volunteered to go along with risky missions including riding an armored train that would be used to spy upon the Boer’s movements. Of course, the train being limited to tracks, provided little useful information and made itself a sitting duck. As the train was heading down a hill, the Boers caused it to jump track and then attacked, killing and capturing many of the British soldiers. Among those captured was a war correspondent, Churchill, who had essentially taken over command of the train and helped get it back on track allowing for part of the detachment to escape. The rest were taken to Pretoria where they were held as POWs.
As a POW, Churchill was in danger. First, the Boers knew that he had been involved in the fighting even though he was a civilian, which was against the rules of war. Those who made it back to the safety of the British lines spoke of his bravery, which reached back to Britain. He was also the son of Lord Churchill, who had spent time in South Africa before his death and seemed to have upset everyone, especially the Boer population. But after a few uncertain days, the Boers allowed Churchill to stay with the officers, who were given a lot of privileges including buying luxuries, such as liquor and cigars, as well as receiving packages. While imprisoned, Churchill developed a wild plan for an escape. The officers would overpower the guards, then free the enlisted men. Together they would capture the Boer capital and end the war. That idea was shot down, but eventually another plan developed where three of them would escape together.
Of the three, only Churchill was able to make it over the wall and then had to find a way to travel 100s of miles to reach Portuguese East Africa. Stealing away in a train, he headed across the country, which got him out of Pretoria. He eventually finds his way to an English mine superintendent who, with the help of a merchant who exported wool, managed to slip Churchill out of the country.
Churchill, once he made his way back to the British forces, is commissioned an officer and continues to fight (but we are only provided a brief summary of his war experiences). After the war is over, Churchill returns to Britain as a hero and begins his rise in the political ranks.
This was a book I read for a men’s book club of which I’m a member. I enjoyed it and found it a fast read. However, there are some gaps. As this is a story about Churchill, Millard never really tells us how Britain’s as able to gain the upper hand in South Africa. She tells some of Churchill’s military involvement in India and mentions the Sudan, but I found myself wanting to know more. She tells enough to make the point that Churchill (who wasn’t that religious) did feel he had survived because something great was expected from him. I found Churchill a bit annoying, partly because he felt his greatness was foreordained. Had I been those guys trying to escape the POW prison, I would have probably encouraged Churchill to go off along for it appears he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. In the movie, “Darkest Hour” which I watched with my daughter after Christmas, Churchill is recalling for his wife how he was so struck by her beauty that he was speechless. His wife laughs and said in that case she must have been very beautiful because it would have been the only time in his life in which he was speechless. I also was shocked with how hard Churchill worked at giving speeches. A close friend remarked that he spent the best years of his life composing impromptu speeches. He also had a mild speech and struggled to pronounce the letter “s”, but this he overcame.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in Churchill. I now need to learn more of the Boer War! This is the second book I've ready by Candice Millard. In 2006, I reviewed her book on Teddy Roosevelt's South America's Expedition, River of Doubt. I like her writing style and will read more!